Be mindful of the intersection between your novel’s world and the real world (Query critique)

by | Sep 19, 2019 | Critiques | 4 comments

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Now then. Time for the Query Critique. First I’ll present the query without comment, then I’ll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to RKeelan, whose query is below:

Dear [Agent],

Nathan is a slave for sale. It’s a good situation, all things considered. He’s well fed, gets plenty of rest. His work consists of talking to people who might buy him, but probably won’t. Not if Nathan can help it.

His oldest friend is Celeste. She’s either a deposed God or a voice inside his head. Either way, she’s crazy. She’s convinced she’s got enemies, and has plans to deal with them. Plans involving Nathan.

Then Ruth buys him. That’s a problem. She’s young, lonely, and has no idea how to treat a slave. She confides in Nathan and shares meals with him. She asks his opinion and expects to hear it. She argues with him. It’s scandalous.

Now Celeste is jealous. That’s a bigger problem. She wants him to run away, but he won’t go. Risk mutilation and death on the word of some voice in his head? Insanity. But Celeste is his oldest friend, and she’s scared. He’s got to do something.

Only, it might already be too late. Ruth’s mother is coming back, and she’s not going to approve of her daughter’s new slave. Not her feelings for him, neither.

Even worse, Celeste really is a God, and she has a God’s enemies.

IMMORTAL, a 100,000 word fantasy, is a standalone with series potential. It is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

I like that this query has a unique style: a bit clipped and with a self-assured tone. There are some mysteries at work (is Celeste real or imagined) and I’m always down for a good battle between gods.

Some of my advice in the redline will sound familiar from past query critiques. I don’t think there’s enough specificity and I’m not sure the plot is coming through clearly.

But most importantly, I had a really hard time getting past these two lines in the query (and not just because it’s a character with my name): “Nathan is a slave for sale. It’s a good situation, all things considered.”

Now, I haven’t read this novel. Maybe in this novel’s world being a slave really is a pretty good gig. But it takes some serious mental gymnastics to imagine a character being happy when they’ve lost something so crucially fundamental as their own freedom.

(Not to mention that the myth of happy slaves is a pillar of some seriously problematic Lost Cause mythology in our world.)

In order for this to work in a query letter, you have to be able to bridge the gap between the world of your novel and the real world. You have to be sensitive to how something like that will be perceived and adapt accordingly. You really have to overcome our very strong resistance to this kind of an idea.

I worry this is one of several ways in which the breeziness of the query lets it down.

Here’s my redline:

Dear [Agent],

Nathan is a slave for sale. It’s a good situation, all things considered. He’s well fed, gets plenty of rest. [This sounds problematic. What kind of a person is satisfied being a slave just because they have food and sleep?] His work consists of talking to people who might buy him, but probably won’t. Not if Nathan can help it.

His oldest friend is Celeste. She’s either a deposed God or a voice inside his head. Either way, she’s crazy. She’s convinced she’s got enemies [Be more specific], and has plans to deal with them [Be more specific]. Plans involving Nathan [Be more specific].

Then Ruth buys him. That’s a problem. She’s young, lonely, and has no idea how to treat a slave. She confides in Nathan and shares meals with him. She asks his opinion [Be more specific] and expects to hear it. She argues with him [About what?]. It’s scandalous [How?].

Now Celeste is jealous [Jealous about what?]. That’s a bigger problem. She wants him to run away [To where?], but he won’t go. Risk mutilation and death on the word of some voice in his head? Insanity. But Celeste is his oldest friend, and she’s scared. He’s got to do something [Why, what does he worry will happen if he doesn’t?].

Only, it might already be too late. Ruth’s mother is coming back, and she’s not going to approve of her daughter’s new slave. Nor her feelings for him, neither.

Even worse, Celeste really is a God, and she has a God’s enemies. [Be more specific. Also, I don’t know that the spine of the plot is coming through. Who has to do what in order to accomplish their motivation?]

IMMORTAL, a 100,000 word fantasy, is a standalone with series potential. It is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

With more specificity and smoothing out the notion of Nathan being a slave I think we’ll better understand the contours of this story. Thanks again, RKeelan!

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Art: Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian

4 Comments

  1. b

    I’m definitely with you on the “all things considered” its ok being a slave implication. Needs to go. I could see myself being interested to read further if the author made the changes you’ve suggested.

    Now as to the Titian – exactly what are the two cheetahs discussing as the humans frolic around melodramatically? They look deep into some serious conversation…

    Reply
  2. JOHN T. SHEA

    Cheetah One:- “As you know, Bob, we cheetahs are the fastest animals on earth, so let’s run away from all this mayhem at seventy miles an hour before that Titian guy can paint us.”

    Cheetah Two:- “I didn’t know that, and my name’s not Bob.”

    But seriously, I found this query a bit skeletal for my tastes. And I thought of ancient Greek or Roman slavery rather than US slavery. Living outside the US perhaps makes my view less US-centric. Virtually all socities had slavery for centuries and millennia, after all.

    This query sounded familiar, so I searched the Blog and found Nathan critiqued this novel’s first page a bit over two years ago. And the novel is indeed set in a (pseudo) Roman Empire.

    Thanks to R. Keelan and Nathan!

    Reply
  3. Matt Randles

    Intriguing premise, but… I found myself stumbling over the style. Short sentences are nice. In moderation. But this takes it a bit far. Constantly. Can the writer write anything else? As an agent, I’d be concerned.
    Clipped and breezy prose can create a nice effect when used appropriately, but I hope it’s not the only tool in the writer’s toolbox. This query makes me doubtful.

    Reply
  4. Katie Engen

    It reads other-worldly, so I could manage the 2 lines in question (but was sure only after reading the whole thing…would an agent go that far?). I like the spare text and rhythm yet I do want more world clues and plot points. Nathan’s suggestions for ‘be more specific’ offer good spots to fill in these blanks and to bring in another writing style, too.

    The cheetahs? With so many fleshy bodies not paying them a bit of attention, they may be making lunch plans… Only the dog seems to have considered this possibility.

    Reply

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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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